American conservatism probably developed much of its groundswell unnoticed, somewhere between the signing of the Civil Rights Act in 1964 and Roe-vs-Wade in 1973. The same may be true of neo-conservatives, who lost faith in the Democratic Party somewhere between the chaos of 1968 and Jimmy Carter's detente. In twenty years time, when I am at the forefront of some ghastly British equivalent, historians will have to look back to the day in 2006 when I accidentally picked up a copy of NME. It was so unambiguously worse than how it had been when I read it, that I nearly moved to Surrey to start reading the Daily Mail. And lest we forget, NME was always a less imaginative imitation of the now-defunct Melody Maker anyhow, so that gives you some idea of how far things have sunk.
Two of the most perceptive pieces of journalism I've spotted recently reflect on some related trends. This from John Harris in The Guardian argues that music taste has become trapped in the 90s:
The idea that the people's music was ever defined by built-in obsolescence now looks absurdly quaint. Last year's highest-earning US tour was by the Police, while over here, the world was seemingly tilted off its axis by the reunion of the three surviving members of Led Zeppelin. The new year brought news that an end-of-the-pier extravaganza known as Here & Now is on to its seventh tour, filling the UK's indoor arenas with crowds eager to see 80s throwbacks such as Bananarama and Rick Astley. Should you want to relive the 90s, take your pick from back-together bands such as the Verve and My Bloody Valentine, or look at the lists of this year's most eagerly awaited albums - among them offerings from Oasis, REM, Madonna and Lenny Kravitz.
Then this marvellous piece by Paul Lay in Prospect (I unfortunately can't link to the full piece), using the occasion of the release of Control to discuss the fate of working class intellectualism in Britain's late '70s and early '80s pop culture. The article makes the evocative claim:
Britain in the late 1970s was a remarkably quiet place, nowhere more so than in the pub, usually music-free, where young bands gathered to discuss world domination over pints of mild before going home to listen to John Peel. There were few distractions: television closed down early, video was yet to arrive, computer games were crude, food was functional. LPs and singles were expensive and thus treasured, as were books. Britain had not yet made the shift from a largely literary culture to the overwhelmingly visual one of today.
In many respects I am a symptom of what Harris is talking about. I struggle to inject new music into my life except with a considerable degree of deliberate effort. But the period in my life when I was exploring and discovering more music than at any other (the 1990s) was via the astonishingly intellectual, inky pages of Melody Maker, which was itself a hangover of the culture Lay describes. With no fear of pretentiousness - in fact occasionally embracing the accusation - the writers melded philosophy, leftwing politics and modernism to discuss pop music, in a mass market paper.
Buried far beneath the surface articles, which became increasingly dedicated to interviews with Britpop bands as the paper began to struggle in the late 90s, miniature debates would rage about the relationship between class, music and very often the habits of the journalists themselves (who never missed an opportunity to publicise their own lives and ideas). This reached a glorious self-parody in the non-scene that was Romo, which signalled the high/low water-mark of ludicrousness, thereby guaranteeing that Melody Maker would be dead within a decade, and that NME would eventually be reduced to blowing up photos of Pete Doherty's bum to see if he has any cellulite.
Indie music needs verbal analysis to avoid ever being 'just' pop music. Yes, Mark E Smith, Morrissey and Ian Curtis may have read some high-brow books back then, but this is not enough. After all Pete Doherty claims to be well-read I believe. The difference is twofold. Firstly, in the 80s and 90s there were journalists at hand who had also read high-brow books who could bring these to bear on what remained, after all, just pop songs. The songs needed the journalists in an analogous way to how abstract art needs critics. To simply accompany music with pictures (as NME and so much media does today) is not to bash two worlds together as Melody Maker used to do when attacking music with language, but to create an audio-visual soup that could ultimately serve equally well as a TV commercial.
And secondly - crucially, considering this is all 'just' pop music - the journalists in question had no fear of sounding pretentious. It's pop music, for god's sake; you have to be pretentious or you reduce it to the status of muzak. For me, as any regular readers of this blog won't be surprised to hear, this was Melody Maker's greatest moral legacy.